Infrared gun finds surface temperatures as high as 179.9 F

03/19/2012 1:13 PM

03/19/2012 1:13 PM

It's hot! How hot is it? We took the temperature of several surfaces around Wichita one scorching midafternoon this week and found things — and people — to be way above the 104 heat.

We had heard reports — and felt it ourselves — that steering wheels were too hot to touch, that the metal buckle of a seat belt burned, and that standing on hot concrete by the pool too long could cause blisters on bare feet. So we decided to point an infrared temperature gun at the objects to see just how hot they got.

Infrared temperature guns are handy little devices that you hold a few inches from the surface whose temperature you want to measure. The "gun" can be used in all kinds of situations, from monitoring reptiles at the zoo to checking for air leaks on the exterior walls of your house to knowing when to put the pancakes on the griddle.

We headed out with the assistant dean of the College of Engineering at Wichita State University to test the surfaces of pool, playground, business and car.

"Real engineers like to get their hands dirty," the assistant dean, Samantha Corcoran, said. Or — in the case of our trip to the playground — get their feet sandy.

Corcoran has a degree in industrial engineering, which deals with environmental health and safety. She'd used an infrared temperature gun in her former job at Hawker Beechcraft, where she monitored the temperature in un-air-conditioned Plant One.

One thing she learned there about using fans: If the air temperature is above the body's temperature of 98.6, the fans, instead of cooling, become like convection ovens and have the opposite effect.

The hottest object we found?

A black leather steering wheel that registered 179.9 F. (A tan steering wheel wasn't much cooler, at 169.)

Burns can be suffered at a minimum of 110 to 120 degrees, but whether or not you're hurt and how severely depends on how long you're exposed to that level of heat, Brandi Zirkel, charge nurse for Via Christi Regional Medical Center's burn center, said.

We must be very adept at keeping our hands lightly moving over the steering wheel until it cools down.

We found that the concrete around the College Hill swimming pool was 131.4, and the white surface that leads into the pool and occasionally gets splashed with water was cooler — 111. It was better yet in the shade, just about the same temperature as the air — 104.8.

Sunbathers also naturally clocked in at different temperatures depending on whether they were partially in the water or far away from it on a chaise longue.

Amy Degenhardt, in the sun, measured 103, while Diana Luther, half in water, was 96.3. A woman reading her Kindle in the shade registered 94 degrees.

At the deserted Sleepy Hollow playground, temperatures were too hot for playing on the equipment. The chain of a swing measured 97.4, while its black bucket seat was a scorching 141.3. The sand was hotter than the concrete at the pool — 138 degrees — and one of the benches was 124.3. A handle on the metal merry-go-round was 118.6, while the floor of it registered 140.

The covered slide, despite being plastic, was burning — 116.9 on the part that was shaded and soaring to 152.4 at the bottom, where a patch of the slide was exposed to the afternoon sun.

In a black Volvo with black interior that had been closed up and sitting in the sun, the leather seat measured 166.4 degrees; the seat-belt buckle, 142; the exterior of the car 148.6; and the steering wheel a whopping and chart-topping 179.9. A nearby car with tan leather measured 154 on the seat and 169 degrees on the steering wheel.

Charge nurse Zirkel said the burn center actually sees more burn cases in the winter, from frost bite, than in the summer from thermal burns.

But "I've worked here 13 years and I've seen people get burned on the pavement walking barefoot, and kids on slides at playgrounds, the metal on there," Zirkel said. Most playgrounds now have plastic slides.

"The big thing is like swimming pools where obviously you're barefoot and if the pavement is not wetted down it could burn your feet in a short period of time" and lead to blisters, Zirkel said.

"We honestly don't see too many (cases), though. Most people are smart and wear their shoes."

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